A national panel of judicial and law enforcement experts convened Wednesday in New Mexico to begin its part in a massive federal and tribal effort aimed at revamping the justice system across Indian Country.
The nine-member Indian Law and Order Commission was established under the Tribal Law and Order Act signed into law last summer by President Barack Obama. It is charged with conducting a comprehensive study of law enforcement and criminal justice in tribal communities across the country, and using its findings to make recommendations to Congress and the president.
Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and president of the National Congress of American Indians, was among the commissioners meeting in Santa Fe. He said the panel has the potential to be a driving force behind implementing the act, which contains sweeping changes aimed at giving tribes more authority, resources and information needed to combat crime on reservations.
"Safe, strong tribal communities are in everyone's interest," Keel said in a statement, adding that the commissioners all have a "deep experience and a passion to address the issues facing tribal communities."
According to the federal government, violent crime rates on Indian reservations are more than twice the national rate, and there is an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence in Indian Country, along with high instances of child abuse, teen suicide and substance abuse.
Federal officials have also said there is a proliferation of gang activity on reservations, and yet law enforcement recruitment and retention across Indian Country lag far behind the rest of the nation. Statistics show there is a roughly 40 percent unmet need in staffing for police officers.
The commission will be focusing on these problems, as well as jurisdiction and juvenile justice issues, and the effect of tribal jails and the federal prison systems on reducing crime and rehabilitating offenders.
The Tribal Law and Order Act includes several key provisions, such as requiring U.S. attorneys who decline to prosecute alleged crimes in Indian Country to share information and evidence on those cases with tribal justice officials.
It also improves the collection and reporting of crime data, expands tribal courts' sentencing authority, revamps police training, and provides for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to ensure violent crimes in tribal communities are prosecuted.
The commission has until July 2012 to submit its findings and recommendations.
Its other members include several tribal and federal justice officials; former Reps. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota; and University of California law professor Carole Goldberg.